June Almeida became a pioneer in the creation of virus images, a work that was remembered again during the current pandemic.
Sars-cov-2, the virus that causes covid-19, is a new virus, but it is in the same group as the coronavirus first identified by researcher June Almeida in 1964 in his laboratory at St. Thomas' Hospital in London.
The virologist, whose maiden name was June Hart, was born in 1930 and grew up in a poor neighborhood in northeastern Glasgow, Scotland.
She left school with little formal education, but got a job as a laboratory technician in histopathology at the Royal Infirmary in Glasgow.
Later, he moved to London to continue his career and, in 1954, he married Enriques Almeida, a Venezuelan artist.
Research on common flu
The couple and their daughter moved to Toronto, Canada and, according to medical writer George Winter, it was at the Ontario Cancer Institute that Almeida developed his extraordinary skills with an electron microscope.
She pioneered a method that best viewed viruses using antibodies to aggregate them.
Winter told the BBC that her talents were recognized in the UK and that she was called in 1964 to work at the Medical School of St. Thomas' Hospital in London, the same hospital that treated Prime Minister Boris Johnson when he was with covid -19.
Upon returning, she began collaborating with David Tyrrell, who was conducting research on the common flu unit.
Winter says that dr. Tyrrell studied nasal washes from volunteers and his team found that they were able to grow some common flu viruses, but not all.
One sample in particular, which became known as B814, was from the nasal wash of a boarding school student in 1960.
They found that the pathogen was capable of causing common flu symptoms in volunteers, but failed to grow it in routine cell culture.
However, studies have shown its growth in organ cultures and Tyrrell wondered if it could be seen under an electron microscope.
They sent samples to June Almeida, who saw the viral particles. She described it as an influenza virus, but not quite the same – she had identified what became known as the first human coronavirus.
Winter says Almeida had seen particles like this before, while researching rat hepatitis and infectious bronchitis in chickens.
However, her work for a scientific journal had been rejected "because the other scientists said the images she produced were just bad images of influenza virus particles".
But the new discovery of the B814 strain was published in the British Medical Journal in 1965 and the first photographs of what she saw were published in the Journal of General Virology two years later.
PhD and Yoga
According to Winter, it was Tyrrell and Almeida, along with Professor Tony Waterson, director of St. Thomas', who named the coronaviruses because of the crown surrounding the viral image.
Almeida later worked at the Graduate School of Medicine in London, where he obtained a doctorate.
She ended her career at the Wellcome Institute, where several patents in the field of virus imaging earned her name.
After leaving the institute, Almeida became a yoga teacher, but returned to virology as a consultant in the late 1980s, when she helped to record images of the HIV virus.
June Almeida died in 2007, at the age of 77.
Now, 13 years after her death, she is finally receiving the recognition she deserves as a pioneer, whose work has accelerated the understanding of the virus that is spreading around the world.